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What Do We Actually Want?

The death of George Floyd has provoked Gen Y to come out from in front of their screens and take to the streets. In a letter to a friend, Joe wonders what the next step will be.

1963 Civil Rights March on Washington

Dear Enrico,

I should probably begin by mentioning how grateful I am that you asked me to say something and also how reluctant I have been to write anything. A big part of that reluctance comes from the fact that I too am unsure about how to approach many of those around me, and yet I am also deeply saddened by the events that have occurred and the reactions to them. With that said, I will do my best to write what I think is happening, and maybe we can both help each other to judge.

As you said, these protests and riots are happening as part of a cry against racism and discrimination that was brought on by the brutal killing of George Floyd--something almost universally condemned both by civilians of all races and law enforcement officers. It’s no secret that racism continues to exist in America (as it does all over the world), but there was something about the lack of humanity expressed in this man’s death that touched something deeper in more people and has caused them to look back and say “what about all the rest?” Honestly, if it weren’t for COVID, I’m not entirely convinced things would have reached this level. However, the perfect circumstances were in place: a black man who was restrained was killed by a white officer, everything was filmed to the point where exoneration due to lack of context is virtually impossible, and people have a lot more time than they normally would have and are already frustrated by their circumstances. But that still does not account for the disconnect, the missing factor, that I perceive in all of this.

Over the last few weeks of countless interviews and news articles, everything has been laid bare: the fears of many (especially older) people that things will change or won’t change enough, the character assassination and sanctification of George Floyd, the call to arms to defend or condemn, and most especially the genuine cries of pain and suffering from people in the black community. In many of those interviews I have found that the truth of the experience of the pain and suffering that many of these people have lived is undeniable and hard to watch. In fact, it is the way that those experiences are being paid attention to that gives me any hope for a positive change from all of this.

One notable difference between how my generation has been approaching the issues of race and inequality and how the people in the ‘60s did seems centered on the idea of what justice is. It seems to me that my generation is interested in punishment and retribution as the form of justice--instead of forgiveness and reconciliation, which is what I always felt was accomplished during the ‘60s. That desire for punishment seems driven by years of a disconnect with the flesh and blood of human interaction and a dependence on a manufactured online image. 

There is little room for nuance in social media, so naturally everything becomes a binary choice. “You’re either with me, or you're not.” And in a world where appearance is everything, the worst thing that can happen to you is to be declared a pariah. So you eschew nuance and pick a side. Online, it’s so easy to shut someone down.  All too often a differing perspective is drowned out by a literal chorus of “F--- You’s”  Yet here, with George Floyd, something so big happened that penetrated so many different kinds of people to a human level that it caused people to want to move beyond the cynicism of the keyboard and computer screen.

You mentioned the S&G song “America” and that brief discussion we had about it awhile ago. The reason I felt (and still feel) that that song accurately describes so many of my generation so well is because everyone seems to want to participate in this big manufactured adventure, looking for this thing that everyone tells you that you should want. However, where it all comes together is at the end of the song when it says “Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all gone to look for America.” There’s a fundamental fear of being afraid, of being wrong, and it’s so arresting you can’t even tell the person right next to you, yet you look out and see that everyone is still chasing the same thing.

The events of these last few weeks made a lot of people stop and say “Wait, what do we actually want?”  But I don’t think there’s been enough of an education to guide that question, so many have tried to answer it the same way as always: by trying to find the stream and follow it, follow the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, as it were.

My generation has grown up knowing that they need to care, but not why. Many of us graduated during the Great Recession, grew up during the wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, seeing many of those veterans ignored at home, and generally have seen a world mostly run by “other” people, usually from a generation or more removed from us. So a sentiment of futility and cynicism has grown; little is done in the face of the many injustices on large and small scales. 

Throughout all of this, however, the needs of the heart are unable to be suppressed fully. So there are moments when everyone wakes up for a minute because circumstances make reality undeniable, and I think this current moment is one of particular importance. It hasn’t faded yet because there is a real sense that something will actually happen. The risk now that you’ve been asked “what do you want?” is. . . do you really know how to answer that question?

Carrón talks about “what can save us from nothingness.”  Well, I feel that for the first time in a long time, maybe even for the first time in my generation, people realize that they actually want “Something,” which I really know is a Someone.  But if there isn’t a help to find that Something/Someone, this will simply fade away.

Joe, Miami, Florida


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